Vancouver Canucks: Goldobin will be litmus test for Green

Mar 23, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; Vancouver Canucks right wing Nikolay Goldobin (82) handles the puck against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 23, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; Vancouver Canucks right wing Nikolay Goldobin (82) handles the puck against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

New Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green will be tasked with the difficult project of guiding the club through a rebuild. His success or failure will hinge on how effectively he develops the Canucks’ youth.

A few weeks ago, I argued that while Travis Green was the most likely candidate to be hired as Vancouver Canucks’ head coach, he wasn’t the best choice. I wasn’t alone in that assessment, but, I don’t discount the possibility that Green will prove us wrong. Indeed, I hope he does.

My greatest concern was that his coaching philosophy appears to be similar to that of his predecessor, Willie Desjardins, whose unwillingness to give young players ice time was the nail in his coaching coffin. No event encapsulated this problem better than the infamous “Goldygate”: Desjardins’ decision to bench Goldobin in his first game immediately following his first goal as a Canuck.

Nevertheless, the Canucks have placed their faith in Green. Despite my reservations, I am excited to see what a new face behind the bench can bring to the rebuild, which has been stuck in neutral for at least two seasons. Green’s statements early in his tenure suggest that he understands that the franchise needs a new direction and that he can’t make the same mistakes Desjardins made, all of which is a positive sign.

Which brings us back to Nikolay Goldobin.

The Man With The Goldobin Gun

Among the current crop of Vancouver Canucks prospects, Goldobin is the biggest question mark, for reasons not entirely his own making.

More from The Canuck Way

In an organization desperate for offense, Goldobin’s natural offensive upside is probably the highest among the prospects, with the possible exception of forward Brock Boeser. (Comparing their stats isn’t easy because they’ve played in different leagues. Goldobin’s best season was in OHL Sarnia, where he scored 38 goals and 94 points in 67 in games; Boeser’s best was probably his 35 goals and 68 points in 57 games in USHL Waterloo.)

To be sure, players like Bo Horvat, Sven Beartschi, Marcus Granlund and prospects like Jonathan Dahlen figure to be important offensive factors in the future. But none likely have the potential to be elite scorers like Boeser or Goldobin.

Goldobin, in particular, has vision, creativity and flair that could make him the most exciting player in the Canucks’ lineup. This is unlikely to change at the 2017 entry draft, where the Canucks will again draft fifth overall and will not be in a position to draft a truly elite prospect.

And yet, Goldobin — unlike Boeser — is anything but a sure thing. This is why Travis Green’s handling of Goldobin will be so important. So what makes Goldobin an x-factor?

Goldobin Slumbers

It seems to boil down to the perception of Goldobin’s youth and maturity. True or false, that perception is that he isn’t ready to play at the NHL level. In his short time in the San Jose Sharks organization, he was dogged by suggestions of having problems with his “attitude.” In Vancouver, questions were asked about his willingness to play a two-way game.

Related Story: Jim Benning Ranked Worst NHL GM

The validity of these claims is hard to measure. The story of young players failing to mesh with their old-school coaches — who bristle at their flashy haircuts, goal cellies, and Instagram posts — is one that crops up all across the NHL these days. It arguably says as much about the old-school coaches complaining about “kids these days” as it says about the young players themselves.

As for Goldobin’s work ethic, well, the chief complainant in Vancouver was veteran forward Brandon Sutter, who called out Goldobin’s lack of “grit and balls” in the midst of the Canucks’ late-season collapse. Sutter’s ill-advised comments, as I argued elsewhere, came from a highly-paid but woefully underachieving third-liner who was supposed to be part of the leadership of the team. His leadership clearly wasn’t helping, and his assessment of Goldobin’s testicles didn’t add anything of value.

The Goldobin Touch

Goldobin’s time in Vancouver has been up and down, but, on the balance, he has shown that he could become an elite player. His first goal was an electric sign of his arrival, truly one of the highlights of the Canucks’ admittedly disastrous season. But the subsequent benching — literally right after that goal —  really took the wind out of his sails. Those who watched him in San Jose noted that the “tough love” routine had never worked well with Goldobin, so Willie Desjardins’ approach was probably very misguided.

He then caught a major flu virus, lost 16 pounds and looked pretty weak in his first games back from the illness. But, after the front office decreed that the coach had to “play the kids,” Goldobin was put on the Sedin line and breathed more life into that top line than it had seen since Jannik Hansen played there. Goldobin ended the season in Utica, where he lit it up, scoring four goals in three games, some of them destined for highlight packages.

This kid has raw talent that many NHLers can only dream of, and talent like that cannot be taught.

Green Eyes and a Heart of Goldobin

All of that said, he’s a long way from being an effective NHL top-liner. “Grit and balls” notwithstanding, his defensive game needs work, and there were times when he was invisible in the Canucks’ lineup (albeit recovering from the flu and buried on the bottom lines with limited ice time).

The question is, can Green bring the best out of Goldobin?

Related Story: Travis Green Hiring a Questionable Call

Green will probably get on just fine with players like Horvat and Boeser. Like Green himself, they are rooted in North American hockey culture, affect a standard hockey-player humility, and are inclined towards a two-way game already.

But “Goldy” is a different kind of character. He is a Russian player in an organization that has a very poor record of its relationships with Russian players (and recently dropped the ball with defense prospect Nikita Tryamkin). This concern is not helped by Green’s own relationship in Utica with defender Andrey Pedan. The Vancouver Canucks hoped that Pedan would play in the NHL last season, instead he floundered under Green in Utica, and was at times a healthy scratch.

How will Travis Green react to Goldobin’s flash and flair?

Silence is Goldobin

In fairness, Goldobin’s attitude is pretty minimal compared to pro athletes in other sports. Yet, his willingness to say things like “I want to score a goal tonight” still scandalizes the no-fun, old-school culture in hockey, especially when it comes from Russian players. It’s a shame, because players with personality are part of the reason fans watch the game. It is still supposed to be entertainment, after all.

Of course, a cocky attitude can backfire, alienate teammates, and set up unrealistic expectations. There is a balance to be struck between allowing a player to be themselves, while having them buy into the team game. Ultimately, Green will have to figure out how to bridge the gap between his vision and Goldobin’s personality.

Related Story: Vancouver Canucks are to Blame for Losing Tryamkin

Whatever approach he takes, the results will be determined on the ice. If Goldy emerges within the next two to three seasons as an elite top-line forward, Green will have succeeded in getting great value for the departure of Jannik Hansen. If he fails, and Goldobin washes out of the organization, gets buried in the minors, or moves to the KHL, Vancouver will have lost another key piece of its rebuild.

After the Goldobin Rush

In Goldobin, more than any other player, Green has his work cut out for him. Players like Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat are likely to play as well under Green as they would under any other coach. But Goldobin — a Russian born player with some personality and flair and an emphasis on offense — is precisely the kind of player that makes or breaks in the NHL based on the coach and culture around them.

Some fans will say of Goldobin, as they did of Tryamkin, “if he doesn’t want to buy in, that’s his problem, let him go.” I think this is short-sighted and self-defeating. If the Vancouver Canucks had done a better job of managing their relationship with Tryamkin, we might still have him as part of our emerging defensive core. The same applies to Goldobin.

The entire organization wins if Travis Green can build an effective relationship with the dynamic young forward.

So, how will we measure Travis Green’s success in guiding the rebuild? Hopefully not by wins and losses, because that isn’t the point right now. And ideally not by measuring the growth of known quantities or the play of veterans who will not be around for much longer.

Next: Canucks should buy low in free agency

Rather, the litmus test for Green should be the x-factors, those players whose fortunes really might depend on the coach. Chief among them is Nikolay Goldobin, whose highlight packages I hope to be watching for many, many years to come.